Community Engagement Content Strategy

Managing expectations..or hiding responsabilities?

At ICCM 2011 we could not miss the usual conversation about “rising expectations” in the local populations when doing a crisis mapping deployment. I have already said that, but I will repeat it here, since it seems a very difficult concept to understand: rising expectations is not an issue that is proper or specifically linked to Crisis Mapping. Rising expectation is linked to any humanitarian crisis, to any action taken in those cases and not only to humanitarians but to all subjects acting in environments where the local population is treated as a “receiver” rather than an active actor.

Now the real issue is that there is no way not to rise expectations, since I believe that expectations will always be there. What can be done, on the contrary, is to minimize those expectations by providing timely and reliable information and by being entirely honest about the purposes of the actions taken. I will use a practical example for this.

In April of this year I went to do an information need assessment in Central African Republic. My goal was to go in one of the villages where there are several refugee camps and IDPs camps and see what information they did have or not have, to better inform the local radio stations about it. In almost all the interviews that I have done, I was explaining at the beginning that the organization I worked for, was not there to deliver any aid, but to gather information and then work with local media.

Despite the fact that I was taking some time to explain this, and the fact that I had a translator all the time to make sure that the info was passed in a very clear way, when I was asking questions about what information do the local population needed, the answer was always: “I need to go home, I need more food, I need a blanket”. In almost all the interviews I did, it took me almost 20 minutes of listening to all the things that the interviewed person need before I was able to talk about information needs. My boss explained it very well with another example: he went to do an assessment in Chad and asked to the refugees there “What would you like to listen to the radio if there was one?” and the answer was “that I can come back home”.

So to cut a long story short – I could give you another million examples of how expectation will rise no matter what you do or say.

The point here is simple: since expectations will be there anyway, people needs to be as informed as possible to minimize misunderstandings and people doing crisis mapping project need to be realistic and honest about their actual possibilities. Simple as it is, we need to learn from the past and current mistakes of the humanitarian community, to be honest.

Three things needs to happen according to me.

1. One is to spread as much as possible information about how do you communicate with disaster affected communities, how do you inform them about the actual possibilities of your project in terms of connection with the humanitarians. In Pakistan for example, we ask the local population to report what they were seeing around them, and not their needs, and we also actively send information out about the fact that we were not in the situation of knowing if the humanitarian community was using our information. Could we have done better? Yes we could, since you can always do better but at least we tried and we were really honest upfront about our goal and out possible outcomes.

My lessons learned in this years as related to this problem are:
– If you want people to send you information make clear what you will do with that info
– If you do not have contact with humanitarians or you are not a humanitarian organization, make that clear too
– Use radios, Internet, leaflets, posters, word of mouth to spread the voice as much as possible about the fact that U DO NoT HAVE the possibility to respond to the needs identified ( if you indeed not not have this possibility)
– Use a language that is not only comprehensible to the local population, but also a phrasing that leave no doubts, for as much as u can, about the fact that u do not have the possibility to respond.

2. The second thing that needs to happen is that we need to stop thinking that people that before the crisis were doctors, farmers, mothers and fathers, teachers, after a disaster or during an emergency will become suddenly retarded. I am well aware of the psychological consequences of being affected by displacement, war, natural disasters and so on, and I am not minimizing such effects on affected populations. What I am criticizing here is the victimizing stereotype that we attach indiscriminately to all affected communities at all times in favor of the “we need to protect them” approach. Protection of victimization are two very distinct issues, and we should not confuse them or use them as interchangeable.

Too many times the approach of who is calling for the “not rising expectations” seems to ignore the autonomous capacity of affected communities to understand and make decisions when they are well informed about what is going on. More or less the same way that lots of people talking about empowering communities to be resilient ignore local coping mechanisms. I believe effective communication can play a very important role on the expectations issue, but not only that: I believe there is an underlying thought in both the humanitarian community, and the crisis mapping community sometimes, that makes us confuse “protection” with not giving information to affected communities in the name of their inabilities to understand what is going on or to act logically as a consequence.

3. The third issue, and one of the most important according to me, is the one linked to accountability.

Let’ s do another example that I really find appropriate here. If tomorrow something happen, let’s say in New Orleans. If I am a journalist, then I decide to go there, and ask a lot of questions, do investigations, ask people what is going on and why. Some of those people will think that, since the media are there, and they will be reporting, and since a journalist is going to make this public, someone will respond to the government for example. Now in this case, the very act of journalists being there, even if people know that the journalists will not respond, is rising expectations, isn’t it?

The problem here is not rising expectations clearly. The problem is that we are talking about accountability of the humanitarian community, or responders in general, with respect to their work and the way humanitarian aid – or political decision, – are implemented. The existence of mechanisms where affected communities are allowed to express their views and their opinions about the way humanitarian relief is provided, is scarring for the humanitarian community because there are not a lot of existing used mechanisms to call for accountability in this sector.

In this sense crisis mapping is an uncomfortable and undesired approach most of the times, and this unease is masqueraded often as “need to protect” or “need to manage expectations”. The truth is that the is a need for more accountability systems in the humanitarian world that allow not only for external M&E, but that incorporate the opinion and the vision of affected communities as fundamental part of the evaluation of the humanitarian work. Taking into consideration all possible variables, from cultural perspective to different roles and duties, and to mandates, the inclusion of the affected communities’ opinion is and can be a winning key point for the humanitarian world. Often in fact, problems and issues arising from the delivery of humanitarian aid are related to the absence or the lack of cooperation from affected communities themselves in the process, or from their inability to understand the mechanisms behind it. A better informed and knowledgeable “client”, if we want to call it this way, means that the work of the humanitarian community itself will be easier and smoother, and that also responsibilities will be clear to everybody.

I am well aware that this is a generalization of the humanitarian community and of the approach to humanitarian aid, since there are efforts going on to involve and incorporate the opinion of the affected communities in the evaluation of the aid system, but still the is a lot to do. Until affected communities will be kept under the umbrella of the “protection” paradigm, and therefore will not be fully informed about what is going on around them during an emergency, expectations will be raised, independently from the existence or not of a crisis mapping project.

But saying that doing a crisis mapping project and asking people to report what their needs are during an emergency, is like to have a 911 number with no one answering to it, is simply too much of a simplistic way to approach the issue. This approach will always make me think that behind this statement there is a deep fear that letting people speak will highlight responsibilities and mistakes of the humanitarian community that otherwise will be be kept hidden.

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